Last month, Seattle became the first city in the United States to ban caste discrimination.
The Seattle City Council passed an ordinance by a vote of 6:1. After the vote, caste became one of the categories along with others like race and gender which cannot be the basis of discrimination in Seattle city in Washington state of the United States.
Caste is a social system in which people are put into a social hierarchy on the basis of their birth. Certain castes classified as lower have been historically marginalised and discriminated against in the caste system. The caste system traces its roots to South Asia and has reached the West with migration.
Here we explain what the Seattle law is, why the law was made, and what led to its making.
What’s the Seattle caste discrimination law?
The Seattle City Council passed an ordinance banning caste discrimination in the city on February 21. The law includes caste in the list of protected categories, which refer to the grounds on which persons cannot be discriminated against in Seattle.
The law addresses caste discrimination in workplaces and public spaces such as in housing and transportation sectors, as per a statement by Kshama Sawant, the Seattle Councilmember behind the law.
“The legislation will prohibit businesses from discriminating based on caste with respect to hiring, tenure, promotion, workplace conditions, or wages. It will ban discrimination based on caste in places of public accommodation, such as hotels, public transportation, public restrooms, or retail establishments. The law will also prohibit housing discrimination based on caste in rental housing leases, property sales, and mortgage loans,” said Sawant in a statement before the bill was passed into law.
The law also gives a formal definition of caste. The law defines caste as “a system of rigid social stratification characterized by hereditary status, endogamy, and social barriers sanctioned by custom, law, or religion”, according to a document on the Seattle Council’s website.
Besides making caste a protected category in Seattle, the law also makes provision for sensitivity training and outreach programs that are aimed towards increasing awareness of caste discrimination with the idea of preventing it. The law also makes provisions for recruiting consultants to train the Council’s staff.
“To prevent discrimination, appropriate communication and education about the new protected class are important. Appropriate media and public information regarding caste discrimination will increase public support, and compliance, and will inform the public of their rights regarding this new law…We want to ensure that community members – and business
owners in particular — are adequately informed and provided the education to prevent possible law violations,” said a memo circulated by a Council official.
While making a case for further allocation of resources for the implementation of the law, the Council official in the memo said that without education, they would be bogged down by investigation instead of carrying out prevention.
“Without adequate resources, businesses will not be aware of this new protection. As the law requires, we will investigate every claim of discrimination we receive. However, since prevention through education, training and outreach would not be possible, we may incur an increase in investigation cases resulting in longer case processing times,” said the memo.
What’s the idea behind the Seattle caste ban law?
Even though caste discrimination has roots in South Asia, it has been exported to the West with the large diaspora and persons of South Asian heritage there.
There are around 5.4 million South Asians in the United States, according to the group South Asian Americans Leading Together. At around 4 million, Indian Americans are the second-largest ethnic minority in the United States. In such conditions, the issues plaguing the Indian and South Asian societies are bound to be carried to the United States.
The Seattle law acknowledges caste discrimination in Seattle and elsewhere. Council member Sawant has also spoken about the prevalent caste discrimination in the United States.
“With over 167,000 people from South Asia living in Washington, largely concentrated in the Greater Seattle area, the region must address caste discrimination, and not allow it to remain invisible and unaddressed…Caste discrimination doesn’t only take place in other countries. It is faced by South Asian American and other immigrant working people in their workplaces, including in the tech sector, in Seattle and in cities around the country,” said Sawant in a statement.
Explaining the uniqueness of caste discrimination, a legislative document notes, “Unlike some other groups subject to oppression from dominant identities where the marginalised identity is clear from visible markers (ie. race or gender), caste does not have visible markers (analogous to sexual orientation), so exposing discrimination may require self-identification that can itself expose those individuals to further discrimination.”
Another document noted that the existing legal or anti-discrimination provisions might not cover caste discrimination.
“Lower caste individuals and communities can suffer discrimination based on their caste identity, and it is not clear that existing protections against discrimination based on characteristics like race, religion, national origin, or ancestry are sufficient…This legislation will allow those subject to discrimination on the basis of caste a legal avenue to pursue a remedy against alleged discrimination,” said the document.
The force behind the Seattle law
While the main driver behind the Seattle caste discrimination law was Councilmember Sawant, a number of organisations working in the field of Dalit and minority rights were also included in the making and promotion of the bill made into law last month.
Sawant described the Seattle caste discrimination law as an “extraordinarily historic victory” of the oppressed castes across the world. She is an Indian-American economist and a socialist politician. She is 49.
Sawant migrated to the United States in the late 1990s. Her profile on the Seattle Council's website notes she is part of the international socialist movement.
Sawant alleged to PTI that caste discrimination is prevalent in some of the major tech giants.
Sawant told PTI that she was able to achieve this historic feat despite tough opposition mounted by a group of Indian-Americans, whom she described as “right-wing Hindus”, resistance from the tech companies, and almost no cooperation from the Democrats.
She said, “So this is an absolutely earth-shattering victory because this is the first time outside South Asia that the law has decided that caste discrimination is not going to be invisible eyes, but instead it's going to be codified in the law that it is illegal.”
Organisations such as Equality Labs, Ambedkar International Center, and Ambedkar King Study Circle, were part of the drafting process. Equity Labs noted that several organisations like the Indian American Muslim Council, National Academic Coalition for Caste Equity, and Ravidassia and Sikh gurdwaras from throughout the Northwest USA helped bring the law.
“The ratification of the ordinance to ban caste-based discrimination in Seattle is a first in history and a culmination of years of Dalit feminist research and organizing that has broken the silence about caste oppression in our communities. We have finally found ways to initiate healing from this violent caste system in our diasporic networks and in our homelands — through the protection of this powerful ordinance,” noted Equity Labs in a statement.